Feature story

Leaning on learning of a different kind

An experiential learning programme is helping teachers and students rediscover the world of knowledge

The purpose of education is to prepare students for life, not for examinations. Experiential learning opens that door,” says Vividh Gupta, principal of the Bal Bhavan Public School in Mayur Vihar, Delhi, about a still-evolving system of pedagogy that’s as far as can be from the rarely interesting and mostly mechanical practices of classroom education in India.

Experiential learning does what its conventional classroom counterpart has struggled to in this country: encourage teachers and students to collaborate in unravelling and understanding the world around them. Absorbing knowledge through discovery is the norm here. The teaching is lively, and students immerse themselves in opportunities to explore, discuss, reflect and discern.

“Experiential learning creates a joyful teaching-learning environment, one that is conducive for students looking to imbibe 21st century skills, and become successful in life,” says Suma Paul, principal of the Assisi Vidyaniketan Public School in Kochi. A teacher reading from a textbook in a drab monologue with students as passive pupils — the factory model of education where school assembly lines churn out students — that’s not the experiential learning way.

Sometimes described as 'learning through reflection on doing’, experiential learning is a lot more. It’s hands-on learning, active learning, action learning, free-choice learning and cooperative learning. All of this comes together to brings out the essence of it: learning from experience. The focus is on the process of learning rather than the product of learning.

Reworked for the times

The concept itself is as old as the hills; Aristotle wrote in 350 BC that we “learn by doing”. But experiential learning as we know it now, emerged in the early 1970s. It has been refined in the years since to become a high-quality educational standard around the world and in India too. It’s no accident that the Indian government’s National Policy of Education 2020, recommended experiential learning as a way to improve teaching outcomes and student learning. Experiential learning in schools is a key transformation measure being employed in the collective effort to reform India’s ailing education system. The Tata Trusts have pitched in by creating an online course in experiential learning for schoolteachers affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the autonomous, national-level entity that comes under the Union government’s education ministry.

Launched in 2020 in partnership with CBSE, the course has, thus far, opened the doors of experiential learning to more than 281,000 teachers across the country. The initiative is driven by teachers who are more than just teachers; they are facilitators, subject experts, coaches, standard setters and evaluators.

The big stumbling block before any of this could get started, was that the teachers involved needed to be taught the new technique of teaching. The challenge CBSE faced was that most of the teachers in its 24,000-plus affiliated schools, needed support and further exposure to impart experiential learning. Moreover, there was a dearth of quality training modules.

The mandate before CBSE and the Trusts was four-fold: develop an online module on experiential learning; mount the module on DIKSHA, — the National Council for Education Research and Training’s pan-India platform; provide an implementation plan and conduct an evaluation study of the overall programme.

A morning lift for students at the Government Middle School in Doyenger in the Khunti district of Jharkhand

No wrong answers

If experiential learning could be explained through a Bollywood film, the Aamir Khan-starrer Taare Zameen Par comes closest. The movie explores the life and world of Ishaan (played by Darsheel Safary), an eight-year-old with undiagnosed dyslexia. Ishaan's art teacher helps him overcome the reading disorder and learning becomes an enjoyable experience for the child.

In a similar manner, the experiential learning approach aims to centre the educational environment around students rather than textbooks and a rote education formula. Students have control over the pace of learning and the methods used, and they get to develop the skills they need to make the best of the knowledge they acquire.

Students are encouraged to evaluate, think critically, make decisions and master knowledge by constructing it. “It’s not padhai (learning) in the conventional sense of the term,” says Sanjukta Mukherjee, assistant headmistress at the RN Podar School in Mumbai.

A lesson on the year 2020, for instance, encourages children to talk about the Coronavirus pandemic, identify words and terms that have acquired currency during the time and make prototypes of eco-friendly masks.

As part of the science curriculum, the students learned about the fibres and fabrics used to make these masks; in maths class, they calculated the dimensions of the materials used; in language class they expressed themselves through poems and essays; and in social sciences, they explored the history of masks in Indian culture.

“Students like working with their hands, they like talking to one another,” says Kalyani Guha, a teacher with Delhi Public School in Nagpur. “Experiential learning pushes students to work together, research and find answers. The answers they arrive at may be different and yet they are all correct.”

For the Trusts, the collaboration with CBSE aligned well with their goals in the education sphere, particularly the project’s potential to bring about positive change at scale (there are more than 1 million teachers in CBSE-affiliated schools).

The core team for the initiative included experts from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and the Ahmedabad-based Mahatma Gandhi International School. A text module on experiential learning developed by CBSE served as the foundation for the course, but merely digitising this would not have translated into quality teaching and learning in the classroom.

Running on plenty

The online course needed to incorporate interactivity, fashion opportunities to engage with classroom scenarios, allow scope for reflection on practise, build communities of practise and provide ease of learning through technology platforms. The project team tapped teachers to understand their practical difficulties and conducted a pilot with 30 teachers during a development phase that lasted a year.

Students from the Government Middle School in Birhu, Khunti district, get involved during a field activity session

What emerged was a four-hour-long course with a step-by-step approach to experiential learning. Resting on the principles of learning through reflection, practise and building on prior knowledge, the course incorporates elements such as joyful learning, student feedback and teacher facilitation, while plugging into multimedia tools and high-quality classroom videos shot with real teachers, with all its hits, misses and moments of discovery.

“Unless teachers engage in self-enquiry about their teaching and apply theory to practice, then come back with questions, discuss their experience, get supportive feedback and go back to the classroom with renewed ideas, the loop of learning remains incomplete for them,” explains Bobby Abrol, who leads the teacher development programme at the Tata Trusts. “We have concentrated on taking these teachers through the entire loop.”

The course had a countrywide unveiling through an orientation webinar organised for some 5,000 principals and hub leaders, followed by 10 webinars to support teachers (these attracted about 60,000 teachers on YouTube). The course is now available to the entire network of CBSE schools through DIKSHA, which has been adopted by education administrations across the country and serves millions of learners and teachers.

The 65% completion rate for the course is a lot higher than the average for similar online courses. The success has prompted CBSE and the Trusts to develop an advanced version of the programme. It’s through the voices of teachers, though, that the course and its positives shine the brightest.

Teacher and students at the upgraded Government Primary School in Murhu, in Khunti district

“I was a traditional teacher and I’ve changed so much after attending the experiential learning course,” says Namita Agarwal, a teacher with the Palace School in Jaipur. “My advice to all teachers is to please join the course. It will help your students and it will help you.”